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Ngatoa fights off Bilinski for feature race win in NZ

Kiwi racer Kaleb Ngatoa bagged the first win for the home drivers in the 2024 Castrol Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship today, taking a fine win in the feature race at Hampton Downs.

Ngatoa fought off a late challenge from championship leader Roman Bilinski to take a popular win. It was a year to the day after his last victory in the FIA’s Oceania Formula Regional competition and moved him to third in the championship points.

Bilinski, perhaps mindful that the championship had reached its half way point and keen to build his series lead in any way he could, didn’t force the issue with the Kiwi for the lead as much as he might have done at the Dorothy Smith Memorial Trophy went to the New Zealander.

“Roman pressured me the whole race. I had to tell myself to calm down and breathe,” said Ngatoa afterwards. “The team gave me the car to do this and my mum and dad are here today to watch it so it couldn’t be better.

“I had a good start and good pace. I didn’t really have to push too much until I saw Roman get going but I had enough pace. Kenny Smith has helped me in my career and he’s always said I should win this trophy named after his mum and it’s great that I finally have.”

Second was still good enough to extend Bilinski’s lead over second placed Liam Sceats in the chase for the 2024 title and he finished the day with a new class lap record too.

Ngatoa – promoted to the front row after Gerrard Xie elected not to start the race after his earlier off – made a great getaway and followed pole position holder Roman Bilinski around the outside of turn 1. A rare mistake by Roman at turn 2 opened the door enough for Ngatoa to get alongside and two corners later he was through and into the lead.

At the end of the first lap the top ten streamed through with Ngatoa ahead of Bilinski, Michael Shin, Race 2 winner Nicola Lacorte, Tommy Smith, Patrick Woods-Toth, Alex Crosbie, Liam Sceats, Kaden Probst and a fast starting Lucas Fecury.

Ngatoa had the hammer down in the early laps, noticeably driving the notorious ‘Double B’ section of the 4km track with more vigour than those behind. He was quickly into the 1 minute 29 second bracket as he built a lead of a second and a half over the championship leader in the first three laps of the 24 lap race.

With the first few laps completed without drama, the race settled down as the drivers settled into maximising the performance of the tyres. There were good battles already developing between Kiwis Probst and Crosbie, as well as Titus Sherlock and Elliot Cleary just a few car lengths behind.

Bilinski’s race came alive on lap six with a new category lap record of 1 minute 29.223 second lap and this immediately ate into Ngatoa’s lead. Further back Liam Sceats was also demonstrating impressive speed, lapping just a few thousandths slower than Bilinski in sixth place and demonstrating M2 Competition’s race pace at Hampton Downs was spot on.

By lap 9 the gap was down to just half a second between Ngatoa and Bilinski. Kaleb responded immediately on the following lap, getting round a tenth quicker than Roman to push the lead back up to six tenths of a second.

Crosbie made a great pass on Probst on lap 11 going around the outside of his countryman into turn one for eighth. Ahead in sixth, Sceats had closed on Woods-Toth and with ten laps to go and passed him on lap 13 to move into fifth.

Bilinski lowered the lap record again on lap 11 too, getting close to the 1 minute 28 second bracket with a 1 minute 29.067 lap. Ngatoa looked accomplished and solid in the lead, especially as Bilinski was running in the Giles Motorsport’s driver’s dirty and hot air, an unsustainable position in any formula car, especially on a hot New Zealand summer day. And sure enough, having got close to the Kiwi’s gearbox, Bilinski was forced to drop back to half a second behind.

With five laps to go the leaders enjoyed a four second lead over the chasing pack, headed by Shin, and Lacorte who in turn were another four seconds ahead of fifth placed Sceats.

Fired up from his earlier win, Lacorte was fast enough in the closing stages to put plenty of pressure on the impressive Shin, but Michael had enough pace to hold him off until the end.

The last lap saw Bilinski have a good look at a pass on Ngatoa, but Kaleb held him off and took a popular win. Friend and former karting rival Liam Lawson was on hand to give the lad from Marton a congratulatory hug.

Behind the top three, Lacorte came home a solid fourth. Sceats had to settle for fifth while Patrick Woods-Toth had a lonely run to sixth, but increased his Rookie Championship points lead. Tommy Smith was seventh, Alex Crosbie eighth and Titus Sherlock ninth and Probst rounded out the top ten. The championship now moves to its penultimate round next weekend at the Euromarque Motorsport Park in Christchurch. Bilinski will no doubt have one eye on the championship.

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